A boon for local meat processors is a hurdle for hunters
The Northwest Premium Meats building is weathered and old, with sections built in the 1940s, but it’s getting a lot of new business.
Elliott Tolbert manages this USDA-certified business in Nampa, Idaho, and says they’ve had a massive influx of buyers and people wanting meat processed during the pandemic– “like 120% increase or better. You know, 200%.”
The pandemic slowed food supply lines across the country as workers at major meat processing plants got sick. That meant more ranchers were turning to local butchers for processing, and consumers were turning to them for meat.
But Tolbert says that shift started before COVID-19.
“I think that the pandemic just kind of accelerated a trend of people going back to the small producers, going back to the local beef,” he said.
Trade organizations agree, saying that trend has played out all around the country. But it’s hard for shops to grow when there are labor shortages.
Tolbert’s shop was able to expand from between eight and 12 people before the pandemic to 18 now. Half of those are new employees, though, and others are highly-skilled senior employees who could retire soon. He knows he has to incentivize them to stick around. That's challenging in a fast-growing area with an unemployment rate below 3% and increasing costs of living.
“The way the valley has been, the cost of living has caught up with the rest of the country,” he said. “We're still not California…but it's high, and we have to pay our guys accordingly and we have to pay them a fair wage.”
However, having a few extra employees wasn’t enough to keep the company processing wild game like deer and elk. Tolbert said it’s something they’d done after hours in the past, but they had plenty of other business these last two hunting seasons.
“When it came down to it, it was just nobody wanted to do it. We didn't have the manning. Everybody was already running ragged, so we just we 86'd it,” he said.
Still, hunters have kept calling, looking for anyone to process their animals.
“I know guys that are doing it on the weekends, and a couple of them have told me stories of, ‘Yeah, you know, they brought it over to my house or I went over to their house to help them cut it up, and it was bad,’” he said.
The meat had spoiled.
Get Your Meat, LLC, in nearby Boise only processes wild game. Andy Dansereau started the company a few years ago because he’s passionate about it. He likes working with and talking to hunters, even if he might not make as much money as other butchers.
“There's a lot more money in cutting domestics like your beef, sheep and pork than there is cutting wild game. And you know, it's cleaner, it's nicer,” he said.
But today he's slammed, and can only really chat while he’s working. He said it's been a particularly stressful year.
“In October we were averaging 110 phone calls daily,” he said. “We just stopped answering the phone, unfortunately. We didn't know what to do. You know, I'm a small shop, so there's only two of us.”
By early November, he had a wait list 200 people long.
This isn’t just an Idaho problem. The American Association of Meat Processors has seen a national move away from game.
“For a lot of our members across the country, wild game season was where they made the extra money that they put into their equipment,” said Christopher Young, AAMP’s executive director. “But because other business has become so good, some of them have walked away from it.”
Young said some shops have tried increasing their wild game processing costs to reduce demand, but in many cases, the demand hasn’t slowed.
“I know someone in the Upper Midwest that, last year, took his price from like $100 to $125 to like $225, and he actually increased the amount of animals that came in,” he said.
But that puts hunters in a tough spot, especially if they don’t have the space, time or know-how to process game themselves.
Even if you got one of the first deer or elk of the season, you might’ve had a long wait to get it processed.
Jayson O’Neill in Helena, Mont., shot a mule deer buck on October 23, opening day of Montana's general rifle season
“By about 9:30 opening morning, I already had it gutted and ready to start the trudge out to pack it out of the forest,” he said.
He got it to a local butcher by closing time that night. And it still took more than two and a half weeks to get processed. He says their message to him was clear.
“We are dealing with staffing shortages,” he said.
Sven Berg got a whitetail doe in North Idaho last year and couldn’t find a single place to process it locally. He ultimately dropped it off, and later picked it back up, in Spokane, Wash., about 40 minutes from where his dad lives. And the cost was more than three times what he’d paid just five years earlier.
“When we got the deer back, it was like a week and a half later. And I mean, it was like close to $300,” he said. “We were just like, 'What are we doing?'”
Berg says he’ll head back north to hunt just before Thanksgiving. If he harvests a deer and it’s still hard to find a local, affordable processor this year, Berg and his dad may just sharpen their own knives.
“We're just going to say, you know what, let's just bite the bullet,” he said. “Let's lay a bunch of tarps out and start butchering this ourselves.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Nevada Public Radio, Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.